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You know, Houstonians used to be pretty nonchalant about hurricanes. A few would threaten us every so often, but they were more a reason for a ride-it-out party than a full-blown panic attack.
Things began to change with Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. Not even a hurricane, it caused billions of dollars in damage and floods in places people thought would never get flooded. Victims who got hit with the rising tide began to pay a lot more attention to weather forecasts.
And then came 2005. The year when phrases like "most intense Gulf storm ever" or "yet another Category 5 storm" became worrisomely commonplace.
We saw the devastation of Katrina, and heard about it firsthand from evacuees who swarmed the Astrodome. Houston doesn't really have any levees that are susceptible to collapse, but nonstop viewing of desperate residents clinging to roofs or sweltering in the Superdome did nothing to make anyone sanguine about storms.
Shortly after that, when Rita was becoming a megastorm seemingly headed directly for us, we took to the hills.
Or tried to, at any rate. The disastrous traffic jams that ensued -- soul-killing, death-affirming things -- were so debilitating that officials now worry that residents will choose to stay home even when they should get out. (Of course, if you're thinking of evacuating from Conroe, you probably should give it some more thought and leave room on the road for coast inhabitants.)
And now the hurricane season of 2006 is upon us. Who will be the biggest pain in the ass? Debby? Ernesto? Hurricane Nadine, with a name that almost seems predestined to fuck up a trailer park somewhere?
The National Weather Service has issued its official Hurricane Outlook for the year. The good news: NOAA, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, "is not forecasting a repeat of last year's season," says Conrad Lautenbacher, the agency's administrator.
The bad news: NOAA is predicting "a very active 2006 season," with up to 16 named storms and six major hurricanes.
AccuWeather is calling for hurricanes to hit Texas in June or July. Other weather junkies dismiss that claim as being impossible to predict, and good only for hyping the AccuWeather brand.
But that won't be the only hyping going on this summer. Expect to see a whole lot of hurricane coverage on local stations and the networks.
Let the fun begin, with our first ever Houston Press Hurricane Guide. Good Ideas from Government
As hellish as the Rita evacuation was for Houstonians -- and it was pretty damn hellish -- at least it didn't involve a federal checkpoint that stopped and inspected every car.
You might think that the first week's classes in Hurricane Evacuation 101 would include a unit or two on Don't Make Traffic Worse than Necessary. If they did, however, the Department of Homeland Security apparently took that day off.
Brownsville is pretty unusual among American cities facing hurricane threats -- it's the only one that also deals directly with illegal immigrants. To battle the problem, DHS has a permanent road checkpoint at Falfurrias, north of the Rio Grande Valley on the main escape route of State Highway 281.
So if a major hurricane were rushing headlong toward Brownsville, it's a no-brainer that the feds would close the checkpoint and let cars speed on by, right? Don't be so sure.
In fact, as of the end of May, with hurricane season only days away, there's still no agreement on what will happen with the checkpoint. At one point in May, Governor Rick Perry's office announced DHS had agreed not to check documentation during evacuations; DHS then quickly announced no such agreement had been made.
"We're continuing to work with our partners at the Department of Homeland Security," says Perry spokeswoman Rachael Novier. "It's certainly a priority, and if you want further information on where they are in the process, I would suggest calling them."
All right. Let's talk to Russ Knocke, DHS spokesman:
Q.You can't possibly be thinking of running a roadblock during a hurricane evacuation, right?
A.It's an issue that we've discussed with the governor and his staff, and it's one we continue to discuss with them and have committed to taking it back to Washington and looking at it from a policy perspective.
Q.Some people -- if a huge hurricane was threatening, the idea of having a checkpoint might strike them as strange.
A.There are a couple of factors in play, one is the local evacuation plans that a given community might have...It's a local and state operation.
Q.Right, except the checkpoint is a federal operation.
A.The checkpoint is obviously a federal operation. But my point is evacuations can vary by community, they don't always mean that transportation to another community is part of the plan.
Q.But people do evacuate, right? In Houston we think of Rita, with 25-hour traffic jams, and having those problems compounded by stopping and checking every car just seems to be bizarre.
A.Well, I -- you know, again, I would say it is an important issue and one we continue to look at here...But we have a very serious obligation to uphold the rule of law, but we also have an important humanitarian responsibility as well, and we're gonna be continuing to work and talk with the state on this particular and rather specific issue.
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